Sketches of The Character, Manners, and Present State of the Highlanders of Scotland


FF, Page 221. Religious Education—Gaelic Schools

To extend the means of education, a knowledge of the Scriptures, and a consequent regard to religion and moral duties, great improvements have been lately made by the humane beneficence of individuals, who have raised a fund for the support of Gaelic schools, and have thus enabled the natives to read the Scriptures in a language which they understand. As the best books only are published in that language, the principles of the people will be protected from the contamination of seditious and improper tracts, and the advantages of education will be unmixed with the danger that threatens their best principles, by the abuse of those blessings which ought to be the result. The means of educating the Highlanders in the early part of the last century, and of instructing them in religious knowledge, do not seem to have been well understood or welt conducted. The established clergy were directed to preach and exhort in English, and schoolmasters to teach in the same language. Thus, while the parishioners were compelled to listen to discourses and prayers of which they did not comprehend one sentence, their children were taught to pronounce and run over their letters with as little instruction. In conformity to this precious system, patrons of Highland parishes have, in many cases, appointed ministers from the Lowlands, totally ignorant of the only language understood by the parishioners.

[If it were proper to be otherwise than serious on such a subject, the appearance the Lowland clergy make in attempting to preach in Gaelic might occasion more than a smile, The mistakes they constantly commit, their perversion of the language and confounding of the meaning of words, which may be understood in two or more senses, occasion ridiculous scenes, which put the gravity of the aged to the proof, and throw the youthful into fits of laughter not easily controlled. When these are the means by which religious instruction is in so many cases conveyed to the Highlanders, their ignorance may cease to excite wonder; and, instead of seeing men expressing their grief and horror at the want of religion, knowledge of Christianity, and the vices which, they pretend, exist in the Highlands, it were well if a share of their horror and indignation were raised against those who deprive the inhabitants of the means of instruction, and some share of merit and approbation might be shown towards a people who, although under such disadvantages, are not altogether so ignorant as they are called. ]

In the year 1791, the case of the appointment of a clergyman, ignorant of the Gaelic language, to a Highland parish in Aberdeenshire, came, by appeal, before the General Assembly. But the Assembly, from the members of which, as the fathers of the church and supporters of religion, a different decision might have been expected, sustained the appointment ; and thus, by giving countenance to an unprincipled practice, by which the very source of Christian instruction is dried up, patrons of parishes are encouraged to persevere in a flagitious system which deprives a whole population of the means of hearing Divine worship performed in an intelligible language. Yet, while religious knowledge was, in these cases, placed beyond the reach of the Highlanders, by those whose bounden duty it was to afford them every facility to acquire it, the state of religion, and the clear notions the people entertain of their religious duties, are very remarkable, particularly when those disadvantages, the scarcity of clergymen, and the general great extent of the parishes, are taken into consideration. The indifference shown to their religious instruction at the Reformation is well known, and looked more like a total extinction than a reform of religion ; for, at that period, two, three, and in some cases four parishes, were united into one ; numberless chapels were destroyed,

[The churches of the adjoining parishes of Fortingall in Perthshire, and of Lismore in Argyleshire, are 78 miles distant. The parish of Appin was suppressed and annexed to Lismore, and Kilchonnan annexed to Fortingall. Nine chapels in these four parishes were totally suppressed; and thus, where thirteen clergymen were established formerly, the economy of the Reformers allowed only two; and this they called teaching the true gospel, where no teachers were left, no provision for clergymen, nor churches for Divine worship allowed. Four parishes were united under one clergyman at Blair Athole. Similar instances are frequent in the Highlands and Isles.]

and tracts of forty or fifty miles in extent were left without a church, or minister of the gospel.

Although there are many thousand unable to read, and many more unable to understand what they read, (in English), the advantages of education, when combined with temporal comforts, are well understood, and when allowed to go hand in hand, they have answered the most sanguine expectations. In this manner, we see men, in the lowest situations as cottagers, giving an education to their children, which fits them for any profession. Many men of my intimate acqaintance, educated in this manner, have been, and now are, eminent in different learned professions. Others give equal promise. These men acquired the religious and moral habits, which paved the way to their present eminence, from the poor but well-principled parents. The number of persons thus educated from the poorest class of the people is, I believe, unparalleled. This commendable trait of character may be considered as part of that chivalrous independent spirit which animated the clans, and which, amidst poverty and frequent violations of law and regular government, developed many honourable points of character.

But to return to the subject of religious knowledge. They who suppose that knowledge is only acquired from books, will find some difficulty in believing that in the Highlands, men without any education, or any language but their own, can give a clear account of their faith. With a memory rendered tenacious and accurate, by their inability to read, and the consequent necessity of retaining in their recollection what they hear, they acquire a competent knowledge of the Scriptures, and on reference to any important passage, will readily point out the chapter and verse. Not only can they repeat whole chapters from recollection, but even recollect the greater part of a sermon. Men of this kind were not to be found in every family, but they were frequent; and by free communication of their acquirements, have greatly contributed to considerable intelligence, both civil and religious. But, as education extends, this faculty of a tenacious memory must diminish. When a man can find what he wishes to know by turning up a book, he is apt to think that he need not be at the trouble of retaining it in his memory. As education is becoming so general, it is to be hoped, that moral principles will be preserved and combined with increase of knowledge, and that the people will read and comprehend the Scriptures with at least the same advantage and instruction as when they were taught and explained by zealous and able clergymen, and by such intelligent persons as I have just noticed.